Science Fiction Studies

# 70 = Volume 23, Part 3 = November 1996





Everett F. Bleiler

Lost Worlds and Lost Opportunities

Arthur Conan Doyle. The Annotated Lost World. The Classic Adventure Novel by Arthur Conan Doyle. Annotated, with an Introduction by Roy Pilot and Dr. Alvin Rodin. Indianapolis: Wessex Press, 1996. xxiii+ 264pp. $34.95.

Around the boundary point common to Brazil, Venezuela, and Guayana (formerly British Guiana), lies a succession of flat sandstone mesas that stand high above the surrounding countryside and are either difficult or almost impossible of access. The most famous of these is Mount Roraima, which extends for about nine miles and is in places about two thousand feet above the surrounding terrain. The local Indians regarded it as inaccessible, and for centuries it has had a reputation as a phenomenon of nature. Sir Walter Raleigh may have known of it as the "diamond mountain," and eighteenth and early nineteenth-century explorers speculated about the wonders that might exist on its surface. Finally, in 1884 the British explorer Everard Im Thurn discovered a way of access from the Venezuelan end and reached the top. He discovered that there was little of interest, not a single tree, only low shrubs and herbs, but that the landscape was a bewildering succession of strangely shaped, wind-carved rock features.

Im Thurn's report, which was written in a colorful way, did not destroy the legend of Mount Roraima, which remained potent. Even more potent for international affairs, however, was the recognition that this general area was rich in minerals, including gold, and was also one of the major sources for diamonds before the discovery of the Kimberley deposits in South Africa. Possession of the general Guianan highlands became a matter of bitter dispute between the British Empire, which claimed the whole area, including much of present-day Venezuela, on the basis of Dutch rights (which the British had acquired in the Treaty of Breda and the Congress of Vienna), and Venezuela, which claimed to be the successor to Spanish land grants.

The dispute simmered through the nineteenth century, but in the 1880s and 1890s became a crisis when the British made moves to annex the disputed areas. The international community urged the British to seek an arbitrated settlement, which was refused. Finally, in the middle 1890s, when the British established outposts and began to expel Venezuelan officials, the United States protested strongly. Congress passed a resolution condemning the British action, and President Grover Cleveland, invoking the Monroe Doctrine, warned the British that annexation would be considered an act of war. The British, at this point, agreed to accept arbitration.

An international tribunal met in Paris in 1899 to settle the question. The membership included two representatives from the United States, two representatives of British Guiana (the British Empire), and one Russian representative, Frederick de Martens, who the Venezuelans later charged had been bought by the British. Martens cast the deciding three-two vote, and to British Guiana was assigned about nine-tenths of the area claimed (including Roraima). This area, as might be expected, is still Venezuela irredenta.

British Guiana received the larger part of Mount Roraima, but the access route discovered by Im Thurn remained in Venezuela, which then adopted a dog-in-the-manger attitude, forbidding access and in effect prohibiting further exploration, for the Guianan side is a sheer cliff inaccessible except to skilled mountain climbers with full equipment, as described by Hamish MacInnes in Climb to the Lost World.

Despite the political importance of this dispute, Venezuelan literature seems to have ignored it. An examination of the histories of Venezuelan fiction available at Cornell has failed to reveal a treatment of Roraima. Most quality Venezuelan fiction seems to have been modeled on French comedy-of-manners prototypes or on criollismo (local color and naturalism with patois). It is possible, of course, that romantic fiction based on Roraima exists in undescribed popular fiction or ephemeral literature.

In the United States, however, Roraima, in addition to a great deal of newspaper coverage, received attention in two short novels, adventures of Frank Reade, Jr., the dime-novel boy inventor, published during the height of the crisis. In Along the Orinoco by "Noname" (Frank Reade Library No. 130, April 3, 1896) Frank and his friend Professor Peregrine discuss "Raraima," which they believe contains "mighty treasures...valuable gold claims...awaiting the magic touch of civilization" (p. 2). Peregrine adds "[on] the mighty elevated plateaus with sides so precipitous that man could not scale them... there might exist forms of animal life which may have been extinct in other parts of the world" (p. 2).

The professor suggests that Frank visit Raraima, not by air, as would seem most practicable, but with Frank's new electric Moto-van, a sort of land rover. The men and Frank's crew set out, have adventures along the way, and, when they reach the general area, are instrumental in forcing a brutal gang of trespassing English miners to leave Venezuelan territory. But the Moto-van does not stand up to the difficulties of travel, and the men return, quest unsuccessful.

In the second Frank Reade story about Roraima, The Island in the Air (Frank Reade Library No. 133, May 15, 1896), "Noname" soliloquizes about the wonders of "Raraima," describing its potential mineral wealth, its bad reputation among the natives as an abode of evil supernatural powers, and its possibility as a refuge: " seemed not beyond the range of possibility that this plateau, probably beyond the reach of that destroying genius--man--yet held forms of flora and fauna peculiar to a past age. Perhaps the megothermi [sic] yet found a home there, or the icthyosaurus [sic], or the plesiosaurus, or some other outlandish and unknown creatures" (p. 2).

Frank and his team, including Professor Vaneyke, board Frank's latest land rover and set out for Roraima. There is no mention of the previous expedition, which, so far as the story is concerned, never happened. The party reaches Roraima, where it encounters a lost race of friendly Incas. Ascending a dry stream bed, the explorers drive to the top of the plateau, where they encounter two white lost races, whom they term, from fancied resemblances, Greeks and Romans, though they are not such. The blond Greeks are friendly, but the swarthy Romans are very hostile. The adventure comes to an end when the Romans capture the land rover and, riding about in it out of control, dash it over the cliff. Frank and comrades escape and make their way to the coast on foot. They did not find dinosaurs, but they did encounter giant elks and a megatherium.

The authorship of these novels, which were published under the house pseudonym "Noname," is not known, although Luis Senarens (1863-1939), who initiated the Frank Reade, Jr., series, claimed to have written most of the adventures. Nor is it known why Roraima should have been the topic of two stories in such a short time. One might speculate that the same assignment chanced to have been written twice.

In Great Britain Roraima makes its appearance in Frank Aubrey's The Devil-Tree of Eldorado (1870), Unlike "Noname," whose sympathy is with the Venezuelans, Aubrey, a rampant imperialist, roundly asserts British ownership of the Roraima area on the basis of fairly recent exploration. He mentions the possible mineral rights, the necessity of British control of the riverheads involved, and contemns the Venezuelans, who constitute "a miserable little state...where civil anarchy is chronic, and neither life nor property is secure" (p. ix). Aubrey also stresses the scientific interest of the isolated plateau: " holds out to the successful explorer the chance--the probability even--of finding there hitherto unknown animals, plants, fish. In this respect it exceeds in interest all other parts of the earth's surface" (p. vi).

Aubrey's story, which was probably intended as a boys' book, departs from Roraima as a geographically reasonable (in a science-fictional sense) lost world, but instead latches onto the legend of Manoa and the Golden Man, which centered in this area. Aubrey considers Roraima and the surrounding country to have been the home of a highly civilized pre-Indian white race, some members of whom still survive. In addition to possessing a technique for near immortality, they delight in dynastic squabbles in the manner of the contemporary adventure story. There are no dinosaurs, only a man-eating tree like the famed monster of Madagascar.

Much the most important story to be based on Roraima, of course, is Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, which first appeared in The Strand Magazine from April to November 1912. The concept of the isolated plateau and its biota of primitive survivals, its general location in South America, the use of manipulated genuine photographs of Roraima as illustrations, all invoke Roraima on a tacit, metaphoric level, yet, oddly enough, Doyle does not once mention Roraima, a surprising omission given his general imperialistic point of view. Nevertheless, the consensus has identified the Maple White Land of Doyle's explorers with Roraima, and there is no strong reason to question this.1

Why Doyle so carefully elided the obvious has never been explained. Nor does Doyle give a clear routing to his lost world. The best that can be said is that narrator Malone's vague description of the progress of the expedition seems to bring it out into the Serra Curipuri in the Brazilian State of Roraima, which Doyle may have confused with Venezuelan-Guianan Mount Roraima. Malone emphasizes that Professor Challenger, the leader of the expedition, insisted on secrecy, and admits to obscuring data. Challenger may have had his reasons, but Doyle, too, may have had his reasons: a narrative tactic for avoiding the labor of precise descriptions. As far as local color goes, most of the journey (with the exception of one painterly descriptive passage) might have taken place along an inland waterway in Great Britain. That Doyle did little real geographical research (as Jules Verne would have done in a comparable situation), seems obvious. His interest was not geographic and he was not writing a travel novel.2

The Lost World is, of course, one of the patterning works in science fiction, a model upon which many stories and motion pictures have been formed. Yet relatively little scholarly attention has been paid to it. This follows the general situation with Doyle. Not only has Doyle been greatly neglected as a writer, but studies of his work have taken a strange turn, which the Cornell University Library exemplifies. There, books about Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars--many of questionable value--take up about eight feet of shelf space. Books about Arthur Conan Doyle or his other works? About eight inches, six of which are multiple copies of Pierre Nordon's Conan Doyle, including a French original.

2. The Annotated Lost World is a good beginning toward remedying this general neglect, so far as a single work is concerned. Messrs. Pilot and Rodin have reprinted the Hodder and Stoughton 1912 text (checked against the Strand Magazine text and American Doran text), with the various illustrations from the three mentioned printings plus a series by Joseph Clement Coll from the Sunday Magazine. (An exact citation for the Sunday Magazine would have been desirable.) A good appendix discusses the Wallace Beery motion picture The Lost World, revealing the unfortunate situation that about half the original footage has been lost. Another appendix offers information about the photographic fakery associated with the novel.

The introduction discusses, among other matters, Doyle's general interest in paleontology and paleoanthropology and his friendship with Edwin Ray Lankester, whose popular work on extinct animals forms the background to the fauna of Maple White Land; but the editors' primary interest seems to be finding real-life prototypes for the characters in the novel. They accept the usual association of the egotistical Professor Challenger with Professor William Rutherford of the University of Edinburgh, under whom Doyle studied, but they add to Challenger elements of Doyle's former senior, the eccentric half-charlatan Dr. George Budd of Plymouth. In this I would not follow Pilot and Rodin; Budd seems to me a totally different personality. I would also wonder whether the mad scientist of fiction may not form a part of Challenger.

Pilot and Rodin go on to associate Lord John Roxton with aspects of Sir Roger Casement and Percy Fawcett. Casement is probably still recognizable to a modern reader, but Fawcett may not be. Fawcett, a competent geographer and surveyor, was active in South American exploration; unfortunately, he had an eccentric streak, was imbued with occultism, and presumably died on an expedition to find lost cities in Brazil. His used to be considered one of the great disappearances of the twentieth century, but he is now probably forgotten. Doyle knew both Casement and Fawcett and seems to have held their geographical experiences in the back of his mind when he wrote the story.

A related attempt by Pilot and Rodin at finding a prototype for Malone, the Irish narrator, seems unnecessary. Malone is simply a fictional type. Doyle was obviously striking at a trinity of intellect (creative and destructive), action, and sensation, with the sensitive Irish Malone offering the pole of feeling.

Pilot and Rodin, however, do not consider literary prototypes for The Lost World, apart from a general reference to H. Rider Haggard. They might have considered the second Frank Reade, Jr., novel, The Island in the Air, which shares motifs with The Lost World. A body is found at the base of the cliff in both. Both Frank Reade and Challenger find Roraima at first inaccessible. A tree offers entry. In The Island in the Air, Barney climbs a rope to a tree at the edge. In The Lost World Challenger and his colleagues ascend a rope to a tree, which they fell across a chasm. Pomp is assaulted by a subhuman, apelike creature. Malone is assaulted by a subhuman (called a Pithecanthropus erectus). Frank and his friends see gigantic Irish elk (an element as appropriate to the faunal melange as a giraffe in Greenland), as does Challenger's group. Frank finally locates a cave-like tunnel which he ascends; Challenger and associates find such a tunnel, now unfortunately blocked, but descend through another. The suggestion is that Doyle read The Island in the Air when it was reprinted in England around the turn of the century and remembered scattered details.3

Would Doyle make such use of material without acknowledgment? There is precedent in his work. He is known to have purchased plots for development; indeed, about fifty years ago a new Sherlock Holmes story was found among his papers and published. Alas, it turned out to have been written by a ghost and purchased by Doyle, but not used. It has also been pointed out that several of the more important Sherlockisms have been taken almost word for word from L'Affaire Lerouge by Emile Gaboriau.4 In line with such use of sources, the editors mention that the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library holds the original manuscript of The Lost World, together with a notebook including miscellaneous material and text that was not used. Such material would, of course, be of great interest and it is lamentable that the editors do not go beyond a bare mention of this.

3.The present volume is designated The Annotated Lost World, and part of the editors' contribution is a series of annotations. Are annotations really necessary? Some annotated texts, like Martin Gardner's The Annotated Alice and William S. and Cecil Baring-Gould's The Annotated Mother Goose, are invaluable for imparting a wealth of historical and expository material. But I do not think that The Lost World falls into the same grouping. Except for one word--"telegony"--which denotes a concept now as out-of-date and as rejected as phlogiston, there is very little in the book that requires textual exegesis for a moderately intelligent reader and could not be worked out from context or simply accepted.

But since the editors have supplied annotations, they must be evaluated. They are very uneven and badly proofed. The editors have put work into identifying and illustrating aspects of Professor Challenger's London and have gone back to the earlier literature for contemporary understanding of dinosaurs. These annotations are acceptable. Other notes, however, leave something to be desired, both in writing and data. For example, Malone, when enumerating roles he will assume to win Gladys's hand, says, "'Just say the word--teetotal, vegetarian, aeronaut, Theosophist'" (p. 4). The annotators explain Theosophist as "an ancient religious philosophy that emphasizes mystical experience and occult phenomena." This is not only a bad definition, but misses the point. Malone is obviously referring (since the word is capitalized) to Annie Besant's Theosophical Society, which was an important element in certain circles of the day. Page 29: Discussing Celts, "The British Isles are now represented chiefly by the Irish, Gaels, Welsh, and Bretons." Page 83: "bravo" and "manso," referring to Indians hired for the expedition, are defined as "courageous and tame respectively." Actually, "un indio bravo era un salvaje, sin ser feroz" and manso "un Indio que vive en poblado, en oposicin de bravo" (Santamaria, Diccionario general de Americanismos). In other words, wild Indians and house or town Indians. Page 84: The annotators misunderstand "of polysynthetic speech and of Mongolian type" when Summerlee and Challenger are disputing the classification of the local Indians. Here Mongolian, which the annotators interpret as the Mongol language, obviously refers to somatology; Challenger and Summerlee are discussing a common racial classification of the day. Page 98: A stylographic pen is not a "fountain pen with a pierced conical point through which the ink flows" but a pen with a little piston-like device that retracts on pressure, permitting ink to flow out. Page 126: The annotators take the phrase "Nunc dimittis," which they misattribute to Challenger rather than to Summerlee, as a hint to move on. Actually, these are the opening words (and the popular title) of the Canticle of Simeon, which is used in daily ceremonies by both the Roman Catholic and the Anglican churches. A statement of thanksgiving, it is derived ultimately from the Vulgate version of the Gospel of Luke. Sumerlee is thus rejoicing in having been privileged in what he has seen. The quotation offers an insight into Summerlee, and even more into Doyle, who, though still pretty much an agnostic, was moving toward spiritualism.

One annotation puzzles me: "Hashish (also known as bhang or Siddhi) is a mixture of the flowering tops of the female plant Cannabis Sativa, Poppy seed, Ginger, Pepper, and others all boiled together. Its deleterious effects are believed to be due to its use in a mixture with Opium and Hyoscyamus. A.O.L. Potter, Therapeutic Materia Medica and Pharmacy, 12th ed."

Potter hasn't been available to me, but every source that I have checked (including the definitive Osol and Farrar) describes hashish as purely Cannabis indica (a.k.a. Cannabis sativa), without the assorted additives. I have heard that users have added everything from nutmeg to maple syrup to their particular fixes, but I would suggest that Potter is somewhat far out. "Siddhi," too, is the Sanskrit word for paranormal abilities, hinting at anticipated results rather than pharmacography. But the younger generation may know more of such matters than I do.

If comment is considered necessary, the annotators have missed opportunities. Page 5: Malone says, "'There was nothing worth bucking about.'" Meaning? Page 83: Malone gives an impossible date: "Tuesday, August 18th." Such a date could fall in 1903 or 1914, but not in the period of the adventure. Page 173: Lord Roxton was "'eatin' pines'" up in a tree. Pineapples? But they do not grow on trees. Page 227: The annotators ignore the implication when Lord Roxton calls Professor Illingworth a "fellow." And the annotators fail to note that Doyle cheated on the size of pterodactyls, which were really rather small creatures.

Much the worst problem lies in monetary matters. The annotators convert British money at 25cts American to the British pound. This is a considerable error: twenty-fold. Actually, the British pound just before World War I was worth a little less than $5.00 American, as everyone working in literary history should know. Thus, whereas the annotators claim that Professor Challenger paid about 75cts fine (£3/15) whenever he assaulted a journalist, he really paid the conversion of about $18.00, which was an appreciable amount at the time. And the diamonds that Lord Roxton brought from Maple White Land, which diamonds the annotators evaluate at about $42,000 (£200,000), were properly worth almost $1,000,000. The annotators claim to have taken their data from R.L. Bidwell's Currency Conversion Tables, which has not been available to me. I would speculate that the error is not Bidwell's, but that the annotators have confused shillings with pounds.

Overall, The Annotated Lost World cannot be facilely evaluated, for it has both flaws and unique material. In my opinion, however, the positive aspects of the book--the extra illustrations, the background material on Doyle's associations at the time of writing, and the appendices--outweigh the defects that I have indicated and would probably be caught and tacitly corrected by a scholarly reader. I would consider the book a desirable acquisition for large libraries and science-fiction scholars. An errata sheet would strengthen this recommendation.


1. Although Pilot and Rodin make the interesting suggestion that Doyle may have had in mind the Rio Ricardo Franco area in the western State of Rondonia in Brazil, which presents a somewhat similar geological formation to Roraima, Challenger's statement that "'all tribes agree as to the direction in which Curipuri lives.... Something terrible lay that way. It was my business to find out what it was'" (p. 36) removes doubt.

2. Doyle's avoidance of travel local color can be contrasted with the emphasis on such matters in the generally inferior stories of Alpheus Hyatt Verrill, notably The Golden City (New York: Duffield, 1916), which takes place in the same Guyanan highlands. W. H. Hudson in Green Mansions, which is permeated with the mystique (personalized and abstracted) of Roraima (Riolamo), makes use of imaginary geography like Doyle, but undoubtedly for different reasons, since Hudson knew South America.

3. Doyle also followed the pattern established by European colonialism from the time of Magellan on: on arriving in a strange land, establish friendly relations with one people, demonize their neighbors and slaughter them, then take over power.

4. Gaboriau, Emile. Monsieur Lecoq. Introduction by E. F. Bleiler. New York: Dover Publications, 1974. The introduction examines several of these parallels and other evidence of influence.


Aubrey, Frank. The Devil-Tree of El Dorado. NY: New Amsterdam Book Co., 1897. London: Hutchinson, 1897.

Cleveland, Grover. The Venezuela Boundary Commission. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1913.

MacInnes, Hamish. Climb to the Lost World. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1974.

"Noname." Along the Orinoco; or, with Frank Reade, Jr., in Venezuela. Frank Reade Library No. 130, April 3, 1896. .

_____. The Island in the Air; or, Frank Reade, Jr.'s Trip to the Tropics. Frank Reade Library No. 133, May 15, 1896.

Osol, Arthur, George E. Farrar et al. The Dispensatory of the United States of America. 24th edition. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1947.

Perazzo, Nicolas. Fronteras de Venezuela. Breves referencis historicas. Caracas: Vargas, 1965.

Santamaria, Francisco J. Diccionario general de Americanismos. Three volumes. Mexico City: Editorial Pedro Robredo, 1942.

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